It was on June 26 that I promised to say something about the fifth nominee who by now is a full-fledged member of the Constitutional Court. I said at that time that “I am leaving the most outrageous nominee, István Balsai, for another day.” There are so many things that would preclude him from consideration that I don’t even know where to start.
First, he most likely doesn’t even satisfy the written requirement that if the nominee doesn’t have an academic background, i.e., hasn’t published serious studies in respectable journals, he must have at least twenty years of practice either as a lawyer or as a judge. However, according to his biography published on his own web site, Balsai doesn’t have that magic twenty years of legal practice. According to the authors of the TASZ/EKI report on the nominees’ qualifications he spent only eighteen years as a lawyer.
He graduated from law school in 1972 and spent two years as a trainee (ügyvédjelölt) before he took the bar exam. It was only after that, in 1974, that he started his law practice which he continued until 1990 when he became a full-time politician. In the last twenty-one years he has had no connection with his original profession.
Since Balsai is not the kind of guy who takes criticism lying down, he countered the charge that he had not practiced law for twenty years by saying that he had remained a member of the Bar Association for two years after he closed his practice. When it was pointed out that membership in that body doesn’t qualify as legal practice, he retorted that as far as he was concerned “that’s the end of the discussion of the subject.”
In 1990 it was easy to become a minister overnight. The new prime minister, József Antall, wouldn’t choose anyone who was ever a member of MSZMP and thus some no-names occupied very important government positions. Balsai was one of them. After joining MDF he became a member of parliament and minister of justice, a position he filled for four years. Meanwhile he was moving higher and higher within his own party, but in 2004 when he realized that the chairman of the party, Ibolya Dávid, was reluctant to join Fidesz at the next elections, he decided, together with a number of other disaffected MDF members, to quit the party in hope of greener pastures. After the compulsory six months as an independent he immediately joined Fidesz where he also made quite a career for himself. In no time he was deputy leader of the Fidesz caucus. By 2010 Balsai belonged to the closest circle of Viktor Orbán and thus received the sensitive job of commissioner investigating police abuses during the 2006 riots.
The authors of the TASZ/EKI report found two short pieces of writing by István Balsai, one from 1992 and another written together with György Sándorfi about individual rights. The 1992 piece is much more important because Balsai is the sole author and the topic of the paper is the Constitutional Court. He was extremely critical of the court under the leadership of László Sólyom. The basis of his criticism was that the court didn’t pay enough attention to the needs of the government. Some of the court’s decisions “place the government in a very difficult situation.” Plus the court didn’t take into consideration the cost factor associated with some of its decisions. He brought up as an example a decision that forbade the government from designating only one “personal number” (személyi szám) per individual. In plain language, a person’s tax number, social security number, number of one’s driver’s licence and any other number by which authorities keep track of people would have been combined into a single ID number. The court felt that such a unitary number could jeopardize the individual freedom of the citizens.
In this same article Balsai complained about the so-called fact that the powers of the Constitutional Court were too great and reminded its members about “the primacy of the parliament.” I don’t think that I have to explain what a serious misunderstanding this is of the functioning of a democratic state with its checks and balances. When some members of the Constitutional Court called the message of Balsai’s article “unfortunate,” Balsai retorted that “what is really unfortunate is that a judicial organization regardless of its position wishes to interfere with the legislative process.” A man with these views is certainly unfit to serve on a constitutional court in a democracy.
And then there is the question of independence. As a very active member of parliament he has drafted several pieces of legislation that most likely will eventually come before the Court. How can he rule on these cases? Will he recuse himself? In fact, of late there has been practically nothing in which Balsai wasn’t involved, if in no other way but by voting for it.
Taking all this into consideration, one has a fair idea what kind of judge Balsai is going to be. The authors of the study point out that because Balsai has had no connection with the law since 1990 it is possible that the little he remembers is from the period of the one-party dictatorship. His political activities of late are not promising either. He was the one who suggested the nullification of verdicts where the sole witness was a policeman. He was also the one who suggested the piece of legislation that restricted the powers of the Constitutional Court. And Balsai is the author of a bill that would change the Criminal Code for certain special “important” cases such that the accused is not allowed to see a lawyer for forty-eight hours.
The choice of Balsai as one of the new constitutional judges is perhaps the most controversial, although the decision to appoint Béla Pokol is a close second. I don’t know how other people feel about István Balsai, but I consider him one of the most unpleasant members of the Hungarian parliament. Arrogant, cynical, and a turncoat. However, he is undoubtedly the perfect addition to a politically servile constitutional court.